Ben Webster & Billy Strayhorn: Chelsea Bridge
Happy Birthday Newport: 50 Swinging Years (Columbia/Legacy 89076)
Composed by Billy Strayhorn.
Recorded: live at Newport Jazz Festival, RI, July 3, 1958
Rating: 91/100 (learn more)
In his autobiography, Music is My Mistress (1973), Duke Ellington fondly recalls that in 1933, London became the first overseas city he and his band visited. "To me," he reflects, "the people of London are the most civilized in the world. Their civilization is based on the recognition that all people are imperfect, and due allowances should be and are made for their imperfections. I have never experienced quite such a sense of balance elsewhere." Ellington also loved the city's picturesque landmarks, including Chelsea Bridge across the River Thames.
In 1937 a sweeping new bridge replaced an earlier span on the same site, and in 1941 Ellington's protégé Billy Strayhorn composed a tribute despite never having seen Chelsea Bridge. Inspired instead by 19th- century English landscape artist J.M.W. Turner's painting of the nearby Battersea Bridge (also thereafter rebuilt), Strayhorn's pastel-shaded portrait was recorded that fall by Duke's Blanton-Webster band, as the now-legendary unit became known. Featured among others were tenorman Ben Webster, Strayhorn sitting in for Ellington at the piano, and drummer Sonny Greer. Seventeen years later, all three re-create the number live as part of the '58 Newport Jazz Festival salute to Ellington. They are joined by Duke's mid-'40s sideman Oscar Pettiford—the original "Chelsea Bridge" bassist, Jimmy Blanton, having died of tuberculosis in 1942.
This mature version is slower, more wistful and far wiser, as Strayhorn's Impressionistic chords and filigreed arpeggios float cloudlike behind Big Ben's sturdy-as-a-bridge balladry. Playing impromptu but tapping into reservoirs of experience, Ben and Billy achieve that elusive sense of balance that Duke extolled, like two great painters alternately adding brushstrokes to create a picture both inspired and inspiring. Anyone who thinks jazz is an insensitive art is directed hereto for proof to the contrary.
Reviewer: Alan Kurtz